Oak Park’s Historic Preservation Commission unanimously rejected a proposal by an Oak Park developer to demolish a 119-year-old house at 224 S. Marion St. to make way for a luxury condominium building.
The proposal by David Lehman, presented to the commission on Aug. 30, faced fierce opposition from nearby residents and preservationists. The final vote was 8-0, with several commissioners stating that the 119-year-old American Foursquare-style building has maintained its historical integrity and is a contributing structure in the Ridgeland-Oak Park Historic District.
Lehman told Wednesday Journal prior to the meeting that the zoning for the property would have allowed for a 60-foot-tall building – roughly five stories.
Drew Nelson, owner of WDN Architecture in Oak Park, spoke on behalf of the developer, stating that he “knew it would be a fight” to bring the request to the commission.
“The argument that we need to keep the fabric of this downtown district — it falls a little short for me because Oak Park does have a very rich history of beautiful multi-family buildings surrounding its business districts,” he said.
Nelson said there is a shortage of the kind of luxury condo building planned for the site. “While there is a proliferation of 1,200-square-foot apartments for lease, new modern condos for the empty nester are very lacking,” he said, also noting that the new building would contribute to Oak Park’s tax base.
“I am not by any means an evil hater of old buildings. I am not in cahoots with a greedy developer on a get-rich-quick scheme,” Nelson said. “I will not get rich on this project I can assure you. I believe in the project.”
Frank Lipo, executive director of the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest and a former member of the Historic Preservation Commission, testified against the proposal, saying that it is a contributing structure to the historic district and that it “contributes to the overall character of the community area even if it is not a superstar building itself.”
“It’s worthy of preservation not because it’s an old building per se but because it retains much of its original architectural character, is in good condition and helps tell the story of the surrounding historic district,” Lipo said.
Oak Parker Andrew Elders, who lives near the building, said it would be a “slippery slope” to allow demolition of the building. “I think once you knock one out because you think it’s expendable, then everything becomes expendable,” he said.
Bruce Lehmen, who is not related to David Lehman, said he believes the current building complements other buildings in the area and echoed Elders’ comments that it could bring more teardowns.
“The problem with all this is where will it all end, this trend of building much bigger, style-free, ill-fitting buildings? If we tear down all the finer things in life, what’s left to enjoy?” he argued. “Modern buildings tend to be plain because style costs money, which reduces short-term net profit, which seems to be the number-one priority for our developers nowadays.”
Commissioner Darrick Gurski told commissioners that he opposed the project because of the size of the proposed condo building that would take its place. “This is kind of the gateway to downtown,” he said. “I think to add scale in this particular place is not appropriate.”
Christopher Payne, chairman of the commission, noted that the building has not been altered substantially from when it was originally built. “I get frustrated when I hear people present a building proposal assuming that only the highest and best use of the property allowed by zoning is the only proposal appropriate for development,” he said.
David Lehman could not immediately be reached for comment about the decision, but told Wednesday Journal in August that he would appeal the decision to the Oak Park Village Board of Trustees if the demolition request was rejected by the Historic Preservation Commission.